07 September, 2008

What is happiness?

Location: the psyche
Mood: just asking

If you ask people what they want most in life, I would bet that a lot of people will place "happiness" very high on their list. It's an easy one to use because it can be generally meant to imply any number of elements.

Or is it a cop-out answer? So obvious, that of course we all would answer it. Almost like answering the question:

Q: "What do you need to live?"
A: "Air"

Saying "happiness" is what we want in life is like a "null response" because it doesn't provide much more information than having not answered the question. I suppose it has a certain connotation to it, though. If you say you want money, or fame, or a family, or to travel the world, or to have lots of friends, or to create something beautiful, these are specific things that are much easier to comprehend.

But what does it mean to say "I just want to be happy"?

What is happiness?

My mother always used to say (and she did not coin this phrase, of course): "Happiness is not having everything you want; it's wanting everything you have". And I think Sheryl Crow managed to squeeze that into one of her songs ("Soak Up The Sun") back in 2001 or so.

Those are wise words. Of course, I twisted them around recently when I said that it is better to want what you don't have than to have what you don't want. I am not sure if that's the opposite of the old saying, or just a different angle on the same concept.

It's an elusive emotion though. Or is it even an emotion? Or just a state of being? We know when we're angry. We know when we're sad. We know when we're bored, tired, scared, anxious, hurt, enthusiastic, apprehensive, indifferent.

But what about happy?

I'd almost assert that happiness is the absence of all concrete negative states of being. I think we could agree that if you were experiencing zero negative emotion, you'd be happy. But I don't think that's a requirement. In fact, I would argue that you could be sad and be happy at the same time. Or am I confusing it with being "content"?

I want to make a list for you of what happiness is. But it almost defies definition. Which makes me wonder, perhaps happiness is simply a choice.

We choose to be happy.

Does that really help with its definition, though? If we choose to be happy, what exactly are we choosing? Circular logic going on here. Maybe happiness doesn't exist!

Maybe happiness really is "wanting what you have"?

Or perhaps "being content with what you have"?

I like that last one. Because it doesn't preclude feeling all sorts of other emotions, some of which might actually be negative, or at least, seemingly at odds with many "dictionary definitions" of happiness. But "being content with what you have" implies the following:
  • you are not longing for things you presently don't have
  • you value the things you presently do have
  • the fewer things you long for that you don't have, the happier you will be
  • the more things you value that you do have, the happier you will be
Okay. There it is.


And I am pretty happy right now.


  1. Teri from Colorado08 September, 2008 16:45

    Here is an example for you:

    Saturday, I ran for 30 minutes, by myself around a park. It did not make me happy. It sucked. I had nice running shoes and comfortable clothing. The weather was perfect.

    Sunday, I ran around for one whole hour playing soccer with some kids at a wedding. I had on cowboy boots and no bra. We laughed and were so blissfully happy the entire time.

    So then does running make me happy or doesn't it??

    This is the enigma of happiness.

    Ghandi used to be happy when he was thrown in jail because he could rest and had time to write.

    Happiness IS a state of mind, not a destination to arrive at, not a goal to achieve. "The pursuit of happiness" is a lie. You'd just as well pursue the wind, yet if you just sit still, it won't be long until it finds you.

  2. "Happiness is not having everything you want; it's wanting everything you have".

    Hmmm... my mother never said that. Not once ever.